Polyphasic Sleep - Sleep Week


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Dear friends, I’m about to attempt the impossible, the incredible, the unfathomable. During the next six to eight months I will be sleeping only two hours per day. Imagine the sudden boost of free time: having 22-hour long days! And imagine the mental experience of being awake all the time.”

Alvaro Feito, an entrepreneur and founder of renooble.com, wrote this as his first blog entry when he attempted to temporarily adopt a polyphasic sleep schedule. Instead of catching z’s in one long session per 24-hour cycle (called monophasic sleeping), he slept in short bursts every few hours.

Almost a year later, he tells BTR he is “quite surprised at how well it worked. I found myself exercising, eating well, generally able to focus and work. It was just impossible to have a social life.”

Polyphasic schedules vary in extremity, but the two most famous are the Uberman cycle, where you take six 20 to 30-minute naps every four hours, totaling three hours of sleep in a day, and the Everyman cycle, where you sleep for three hours at once, plus three 20 minute naps throughout the day.

Decades ago, science had no real understanding of the necessity for sleep, only that excessive deprivation results in lack of cognitive functioning, and complete deprivation has resulted in death for lab animals. Today, sleep is understood as a key component to memory, learning, decision-making, and social functioning.

There are five stages of sleep. Stage 1 is light and often characterized by muscle spasms. In Stage 2, brain waves begin to slow, but are interrupted by short spikes of activity called sleep spindles. Stages 3 and 4 are called “deep sleep” and are characterized by very slow brain waves. People awoken in these stages feel groggy and disoriented. The last stage is called REM sleep, and it is when our muscles become paralyzed, our eyes jerk rapidly around beneath their lids, and we experience dreams. Monophasic sleepers cycle through each stage in turn, with the beginning of the night devoted more to deep sleep, and the end to REM.

Though there are hypotheses that deep sleep and REM are the most important, one study at the Chronobiology Research Institute near Boston, MA, found that a subject sleeping polyphasically spent each successive nap in one of the five phases, suggesting that each is of equal importance.

Measuring his brainwaves with an EEG apparatus, Feito discovered this was more or less true for him, too. He reported general well-being and good cognitive functioning, also like the subject in Boston, who scored only minimally below average on logic and math questions even on the days he found it most difficult to stay awake.

Despite high performance levels, Feito says, “Your body starts to play tricks on you. You’ll sort of talk yourself into sitting down on the couch for a while, justifying it by saying ‘I just need to rest for a minute,’ then before you realize it you’ve fallen asleep.”

Not all polyphasic sleepers talk about their experience so mildly. One journalist for Men’s Health describes his month of polyphasic sleeping as “madness”, citing both physical and mental problems resulting from his experiment. Others report “floaty periods” of staring into space, unable to form thoughts. These are most likely micronaps — brief moments of physiological sleep that you are consciously unaware of.

Martijn Schirp, co-founder of High Existence, explains to BTR that he views his month long trial on a polyphasic schedule as a “failed experiment.”

“I slowly started to disintegrate, it was very hard. I had no lust to do anything, I just ended up watching a lot of movies to try and stay awake.”

Though many aspire to be as productive as DaVinci, who is rumored to have slept only two hours a night, most end up like Schirp, who did not succeed in learning to cook or play the guitar, but did become an expert at “laundry and house cleaning.”

Polyphasic sleepers often say time seems to slow down. Steve Pavlina, author of Personal Development for Smart People, journals in his polyphasic sleeping blog that “when combined with the fact that I’m awake 21-22 hours per day, the expanded dream perception makes each day feel like it’s closer to two days in duration…this is strangely becoming a transcendent, almost spiritual experience for me…although I can perceive the passing of days and nights by watching environmental cues, internally I feel more like a timeless observer who’s no longer bound to that system.”

Schirp says a major benefit for him was the development of lucid dreams. “I had a lucid dream almost every day, and generally more awareness while asleep. After two weeks, my lucid dreams became more lucid, until I could control everything I set my mind to; swim, fly, transform my body. It’s like the ultimate mind training, and it implies you’re capable of transforming your own reality, a very powerful idea.”

In certain cases, polyphasic sleeping is a necessity. Professional solo sailboat racers train to cat-nap during their routes to avoid losing too much ground when they’re not on deck. Many of them seek the tutelage of Dr. Claudio Stampi, Dr. Sleep to those in the know, founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute and author of Why We Nap. Stampi hypothesizes that humans are actually biologically programmed to sleep in four hour cycles because in hunter-gatherer days that would have made us less prone to predators and better able to provide for ourselves. Societal structures today aren’t conducive to napping, so we’ve learned to adapt. Based on the timing of these cycles, he trains racers to stay awake for up to 22 hours a day.

If you’re thinking about attempting polyphasic sleeping, bear in mind many doctors do not endorse it. One sleep specialist told Men’s Health that polyphasic sleeping quickly causes “changes in blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, glucose metabolism, temperature regulation, and appetite.” Schirp and Feito both add “general grumpiness” to that list.

“Be prepared to loose the world for a while,” says Feito, “don’t have a demanding job or social life, and get ready for a very difficult three-week ‘adaptation period.’” He recommends the Everyman versus the Uberman, especially as a beginner, and notes the importance of a partner to hold you accountable to your schedule.

“You need a lot of patience, and a lot of discipline…but it can be very rewarding. Back then, I had sea views from my apartment, and I would spend a few great hours of the day, between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., looking at the waves. Everything is just quiet. The world is asleep.”